It seems to me that a significant portion of growth to moral maturity consists in the fuller recognition of the true measure of brutality humans practice toward one another and in the willful choice to respond even to that newly apprehended reality in the altruism and charity one had speculated on from the armchair of youth. Only this more cognizant version of self-sacrifice can really be called ‘moral’ in the fullest sense of the word.
If I am able to analyze the prisoner’s dilemma of other parties and propose altruism as the only rational solution, I am not moral — at most you might say I was clever. Only if one were to rise to the occasion, fully conscious of how much will be immediately lost to the insatiable rapacity of human greed, and in that full awareness aspire to the same principle of love, once appealing for its formal elegance — only then might we call a man virtuous, and at that, maybe even heroic.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you are put through trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James 1:2 ff.
I don’t think it’s mere chance that caused Beethoven’s so-called ‘heroic period’ to coincide with the vital stage of life when men are generally compelled to face this hard reality and finally to decide how it is they will respond in practice. It is the vita activa that most advances at this stage, perhaps to achieve some kind of parity with the vita contemplativa, which thrived in the fantasies of childhood. That parity is only reached through a cathartic process of suffering and crisis, as one wrestles to apply the self-evident wisdom of children to the grave adversities of men.
“We rejoice also in suffering, for we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope.” Romans 5:3
Recently, I composed a piece for piano, which the performer described to me as sounding ‘heroic’. In the moment he said it, I laughed at him reflexively. What he didn’t understand was how brutally rational and unromantic that composition was; indeed, I had composed it by designing a computer program precisely for that purpose, and the ‘heroic’ passage in question was produced entirely by the inexorable logic of formal algorithms.
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3
Nonetheless, the old, European romanticism of performers sometimes preserves a child-like wisdom that we would do well to apply to this severe moment in history, as our society comes of age. I’m not a romantic like my friend, but I’m not a modernist either. I think music serves the same purpose at pretty much any time in history — the purpose it has served since its infancy, when the first humans began confronting the basic questions of existence through religious poems and songs. One such question I’m asking myself presently is this: what could inspire men to act courageously on those moral truths that are plain to them from birth?